PEARL HARBOR - The Navy retains female sailors at half the rate it holds on to men. One result is that it doesn't have enough senior enlisted women on some ships stationed overseas, leaders of the Navy say.
The Navy's top commander for personnel said the service has repeatedly learned problems develop if a ship has many junior enlisted females but no senior enlisted women on board to mentor them.
Vice Adm. William Moran told reporters during a visit to Pearl Harbor on Thursday he thinks the fundamental reason is that women want to start families and need more time to do so. This often makes women choose between staying in uniform and starting a family, he said.
"What can we do different that doesn't make that choice so hard? Or gives them an opportunity to go and then come back?" Moran said.
Women account for 19 percent of all sailors, but they make up just 10 to 11 percent of the senior enlisted ranks.
Moran called retaining women at a rate that allows the Navy to sustain the workforce one of the Navy's most significant challenges.
Moran said commanders are talking to sailors to learn what changes could be made to encourage women to stay. "We're looking at everything we can possibly do to change that dynamic," he said.
The Navy offers women six weeks of paid maternity leave. New mothers may also defer deployments for a year. Adoptive mothers are eligible for three weeks of paid maternity leave and may defer deployments for four months.
The Navy has already experimented with reforms. A pilot program allows men and women to take sabbaticals, for example.
Other senior leaders, including Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, have made addressing the low retention rate for women a priority.
Legislation before the U.S. Congress may also help. The Military Opportunities for Mothers Act would enable women giving birth an additional six weeks off unpaid, for a total of three months of maternity leave.
The bill aligns military maternity leave with guidelines for other federal employees.
The House passed the legislation Wednesday as an amendment to a defense spending bill.